Shades of Kinch the Elder

Jor-El of Krypton (as portrayed by Marlon Brando), shortly before sending his only son across the wine-dark sea of space to be raised among us in my own home state of Kansas, spoke a blessing which concludes as follows: “The son becomes the father, and the father the son.” Jor-El, who had access to the total accumulation of all literature and scientific fact from dozens of other worlds, spanning the 28 known galaxies (and who was knowledgeable, for instance, on the subject of Einstein), might very well have discovered the wisdom of this paradoxical formulation in the literature of our own world. The first episode of Ulysses is inspired by one of the archetypal literary sons, Telemachus of the Odyssey. And it alludes tantalizingly to another, in Stephen’s theory, which as I understand is expounded later in the book, that “Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.”

Haines misunderstands Buck’s summary of this thesis: “What? Haines said, beginning to point at Stephen. He himself?” Funny, but suggestive and undoubtedly meaningful. I can’t wait to hear Stephen’s theory of Hamlet, but for the time being it is perhaps enough to realize that we are at the beginning of a novel in which generations will become bewilderingly conflated and inverted. The final line of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man should give some clue to this: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” The mythical Daedalus becomes, for Stephen, both patron and patriarch. This evocation of a legendary forebear is also a kind of rejection of Stephen’s own earthly father. Substituting his namesake, the artificer, for his literal parent, Stephen asserts as central to the life of the artist the process of self-creation, of imagining oneself into existence. If we symbolically equate Dedalus with Daedalus, as Stephen clearly does, then Stephen is both his own father and his own son, both Daedalus and Icarus, the creator capable of imaginative flight, and the derivative product of another’s invention, in danger of crashing and burning.

This paradox, this vertigo, this sometimes transcendent and sometimes nightmarish blurring of generational boundaries, has lately been central to my personal literary fixations, because whatever exactly is the relationship between the different types of creative urges – imaginative and biologic, artistic and procreative – it amounts to something more than an attractive metaphor. I think, rather, that it is something profoundly and mysteriously important to being human, something that we can never fully understand. I’d venture to say that Joyce would agree with me on this. Surely Shakespeare would – to the extent that anything at all about him is sure. The Church clearly agrees, in some anxious and coded way, as Joyce points out to us, by including in his enumeration of heresies “that the Father was Himself His own Son.” This should strongly remind us of Stephen’s Hamlet theory (which also includes a ghost, the third part of the Trinity), even as it sends the mind reeling in bewilderment at the task of comprehending a symbolic schema and genealogy which incorporates God and Christ, Odysseus and Telemachus, Daedalus and Icarus, Hamlet and his father (very possibly portrayed, at the Globe, by Shakespeare himself), Stephen and… who? Bloom, I guess, in keeping with the Odysseus/Telemachus formula. And, speaking of Blooms, the anxiety of influence, the oedipal model of literary history, is palpably at issue in a novel which takes as its starting point virtually the oldest extant work of Western literature, and as one of its protagonists a young man whose existential problem is, in a sense, to write even as he is being written – by society, by his “two masters,” by the literature that he absorbs, and by James Joyce, his father and ghostly self.

In a sense, the evocation of Oedipus fits snugly into this general theme (“The son becomes the father,” etc). The man did, after all, marry his own mother. At the same time, however, it is intriguingly discordant with the actual behavior of the particular literary sons being discussed. One of the most striking facts revealed in this first episode of Ulysses is Stephen’s refusal to pray for his own mother as she lay dying – an event, if I recall, drawn from Joyce’s own life. It’s exceptionally cold behavior, and it hints at an ambivalence toward the mother (and, possibly, women in general) which draws Stephen closer to Telemachus, as well as Hamlet. It is absolutely fascinating to me that, although to my understanding Shakespeare had probably not encountered the Odyssey directly at the time that he wrote Hamlet, the situations of the Prince of Ithaca and the Prince of Denmark present striking parallels. Both see their court usurped and their mother courted/married by murderous interlopers. And as Telemachus is charged by Athena with emulating his father’s greatness by slaying the suitors, Hamlet receives orders from a far more disturbing agent to kill Claudius. The differences in how these two young men go about their tasks are, of course, profoundly significant. But one commonality is the suspicion and hostility manifested (in far greater degree by Hamlet) toward the mother. Telemachus nurses a vague misogyny, bred by his felt need to assert masculine dominance as the head of his household and the consequent displacement of all his filial rebelliousness, in the absence of his father, onto his mother. This hostility is greatly enhanced by the narrative, repeated obsessively in the Odyssey, of Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon upon his return home from the war. For Hamlet, Queen Gertrude is little better than Clytemnestra, and his agony and distraction over his mother’s infidelity and remarriage is perhaps the one thing he can never think his way past – only her death releases him to fulfill his original task. But where Telemachus draws his spite toward his mother from an outside narrative, Hamlet filters his into one: the play he re-titles The Mousetrap. The entire play-within-a-play sequence is partly a mouthpiece for Hamlet’s condemnation of Gertrude, yes, but it also reveals to us Hamlet the aesthete, a theatrical critic, director, writer, and performer who, like Stephen Dedalus, likes to pontificate on points of art (“Speak the speech,” etc). It is the Hamlet who, like Stephen, writes as he is written, staging a theatrical tragedy even as he is confined in one. It is Shakespeare the formal experimenter, the self-reflexive artist, the three centuries-displaced modernist. The possibility that Shakespeare may have portrayed both the king in The Mousetrap and the ghost of King Hamlet is too enticing to ignore, for it would suggest that Hamlet, in reviving his father on stage, becomes in a sense his creator’s creator – his own grandpa.

It’s not yet clear to what extent this bewildering cyclicality, and the endless permutations of identity which it permits, will manifest in Ulysses. But we should keep in mind that Joyce is a Telemachus who is inventing, in Leopold Bloom, his own Odysseus. There will be more to say on these themes, I’m sure, but this post is much too long and incoherent already, for which I apologize.

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